Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
On November 4, the Supreme Court of North Carolina determined that an appeals court erred by remanding a case concerning a defendant bank’s Home Affordable Modification Program to a trial court with instructions to make factual findings and conclusions of law on the defendant’s motion to dismiss. Plaintiffs sued the defendant alleging fraud and other related claims arising out of the bank’s mortgage modification program. The trial court dismissed the claims for failure to state a claim pursuant to North Carolina’s Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), after concluding that plaintiffs’ claims were time barred and “that ‘the claims of all [p]laintiffs who were parties to foreclosure proceedings [were] barred by the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel.’” Plaintiffs appealed. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court claiming that “it could not ‘determine the reason behind the grant’ and could not ‘conduct a meaningful review of the trial court’s conclusions of law.’” The North Carolina Supreme Court countered, however, that there exists “no legal basis or practical reason for the Court of Appeals to remand the case to the trial court to make factual findings and conclusions of law” as “a trial court is not required to make factual findings and conclusions of law to support its order unless requested by a party”—a request neither party made. According to the North Carolina Supreme Court, the appeals court erred by not conducting a de novo review of the sufficiency of the plaintiffs’ allegations. The North Carolina Supreme Court ordered the appeals court to address whether the plaintiffs’ allegations, if treated as true, are sufficient to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
On November 4, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey granted a plaintiffs’ motion for class certification in an FDCPA suit related to credit reporting language used in collection letters. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs received collection letters from the defendant with a statement that read: “Our records indicate there is still a balance on this past due account. Please respond to this letter within seven days or we may take additional collection efforts. The creditor shown above has authorized us to submit this account to the nationwide credit reporting agencies. As required by law, you are hereby notified that a negative credit report reflecting your credit record may be submitted to a credit reporting agency if you fail to fulfill the terms of your credit obligations.” The plaintiffs alleged FDCPA violations against the defendant, claiming that the letters constituted false and misleading collection efforts because the defendants did not intend to report the debts to credit reporting agencies within seven days of the letters’ receipt, as the defendant’s policy was to report debts “approximately sixty (60) days from placement absent contract instructions from its client.” The court noted that the collection letter in question was sent to 984 individuals, meeting the numerosity component for class certification. The court also held that, because all members of the class share the same FDCPA claim, the commonality and predominance components of certification were satisfied. The court also ruled that typicality, adequacy, ascertainability, and superiority components were met, and certified the class.
On November 7, the Massachusetts attorney general announced a settlement with a payment processing company to resolve claims that it provided substantial assistance to a debt settlement provider engaged in unlawful business practices that charged consumers premature and inflated fees in violation of state and federal law. According to an assurance of discontinuance filed in Suffolk Superior Court, the company processed settlement and fee payments for consumers enrolled in various debt settlement programs, including those offered by a debt settlement provider that was previously fined $1 million by the AG’s office for allegedly harming financially-distressed consumers. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The newest settlement resolves claims that the company transferred unlawful fee payments to the debt settlement provider despite having knowledge of the alleged misconduct and even after the provider was sued by the AG’s office. Without admitting any facts, liability, or wrongdoing, the company has agreed to pay $600,000 to the Commonwealth, and will, according to the announcement, “make meaningful business practice changes that would prevent it from transferring untimely fees from any Massachusetts consumer account to any debt settlement company.”
On November 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of a credit reporting agency (defendant) accused of violating the FCRA. According to the opinion, a father and son (plaintiff) filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy petitions just over a year apart with the same attorney. Both petitions had their similar names, identical address, and, mistakenly, the plaintiff’s social security number. Although the attorney corrected the social security number on the father’s bankruptcy petition the day after it was filed, the defendant allegedly failed to catch the amendment and erroneously reported the father’s bankruptcy on the plaintiff’s credit report for nine years. When the plaintiff noticed the error, he sent the defendant a letter and demanded a sum in settlement. The defendant removed the father’s bankruptcy filing from the plaintiff’s credit report. The plaintiff sued two credit reporting agencies, alleging they violated the FCRA by failing to “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy” of his reported information. One of the agencies settled with the plaintiff. A district court granted the other defendant’s motion for summary judgment, which the plaintiff appealed.
On the appeal, the 6th Circuit noted that the plaintiff “has standing to bring this action, but also agree that he cannot establish that [defendant’s] procedures were unreasonable as a matter of law.” The appellate court found that, because the defendant gathered information from reliable sources and because someone “with at least some legal training” would have had to manually review the bankruptcy docket to notice that the Social Security number had been updated, the defendant did not violate the FCRA. The appellate court wrote that the defendant’s “processes strike the right balance between ensuring accuracy and avoiding ‘an enormous burden’ on consumer credit reporting agencies.” Furthermore, the 6th Circuit stated that, “[g]iven the sheer amount of data maintained by these companies, we know that consumers are ‘in a better position . . . to detect errors’ in their credit reports and inquire about a fix.”
On November 2, FDIC acting Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg delivered remarks before the National Association of Affordable Housing Lenders to address ongoing Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) rulemaking, the results of the FDIC’s most recent National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households, and challenges from nonbank payment services. In his remarks, Gruenberg referenced the pending notice of proposed rulemaking (NPR) on the CRA issued in May by the FDIC, OCC, and the Federal Reserve Board (collectively, “agencies”). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the NPR would update how CRA activities qualify for consideration, where CRA activities are considered, and how CRA activities are evaluated. Gruenberg stated that the agencies are committed to strengthening the law’s impact and “increasing transparency and predictability in its application,” and said the FDIC is currently reviewing approximately 1,000 unique comments received in response to the NPR. Gruenberg also discussed the results of the FDIC’s most recent National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households. According to the biennial survey, an estimated 4.5 percent of U.S. households (representing 5.9 million households) lack a bank or credit union account, the lowest national unbanked rate since the FDIC survey began in 2009 (covered by InfoBytes here). Gruenberg noted that the survey found that the rate of unbanked households decreased consistently over the past decade, from 8.2 percent in 2011 to 4.5 percent in 2021. He also said that the survey indicated that 14.1 percent of households were underbanked, although demand for several nonbank products and services decreased. Gruenberg further commented that the survey revealed regulatory challenges in light of the array of options available to consumers, specifically nonbank online payment services. He explained that though “banked households were significantly more likely to use nonbank online payments services than unbanked households, the most common use cases were quite different between the two groups. Banked households most commonly reported that they used these services primarily to send or receive money from family or friends and to make online purchases, as a complement to a bank account. In contrast, the most common use cases among unbanked households revealed that they were using these services as they might otherwise have used bank accounts: paying bills, receiving income and as a vehicle to save or keep money safe.”
On November 3, the FTC announced an action against an internet phone service provider claiming the company imposed “junk fees” and made it difficult for consumers to cancel their services. The FTC alleged in its complaint that the company violated the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act by imposing a series of obstacles, sometimes referred to as “dark patterns”, to deter and prevent consumers from canceling their services or stopping recurring charges. Consumers who were able to sign up for services online were allegedly forced to speak to a live “retention agent” on the phone during limited working hours in order to cancel their services. The company also allegedly employed a “panoply of hurdles” to cancelling consumers by, among other things, making it difficult for the consumer to locate the phone number on the website, obscuring contact information, failing to consistently transfer consumers to the appropriate number, imposing lengthy wait times, holding reduced operating hours for the cancellation line, and failing to provide promised callbacks. Additionally, the FTC claimed the company often informed consumers they would have to pay an early termination fee (sometimes hundreds of dollars) that was not clearly disclosed when they signed up for the services, and continued to illegally charge consumers without consent even after they requested cancellation. According to the FTC, consumers who complained often only received partial refunds.
Under the terms of the proposed stipulated order, the company will be required to take several measures, including (i) obtaining consumers’ express, informed consent to charge them for services; (ii) simplifying the cancellation process to ensure it is easy to find and use and is available through the same method the consumer used to enroll; (iii) ending the use of dark patterns to impede consumers’ cancellation efforts; and (iv) being transparent about the terms of any negative option subscription plans, including providing required disclosures as well as a simple mechanism for consumers to cancel the feature. The company will also be required to pay $100 million in monetary relief.
On November 2, the CFPB’s Office of Research released an update showing that student loan borrowers are increasingly likely to struggle to make monthly payments when federal Covid-19 payment suspensions end in January 2023. The findings follow a report issued in April discussing the credit health of student loan borrowers during the pandemic (covered by InfoBytes here). According to the April report, researchers found that borrowers most at risk when payment suspension ends include those who are 30 to 49 years of age and who live in low-income, high-minority census tracts. However, the Bureau pointed out that since the report was released, inflation has risen and delinquencies and balances have increased for consumers across credit products—both of which may contribute to potential payment challenges for borrowers. The Bureau also noted that during this time, payment suspensions were extended through the end of 2022, and President Biden announced a student debt cancellation plan to reduce payment burdens for many borrowers and completely eliminate loans for others (covered by InfoBytes here).
The Bureau’s recent findings examined data from its Consumer Credit Panel (a deidentified sample of credit records from one of the nationwide consumer reporting agencies) on consumers who are expected to resume scheduled loan payments at the end of the suspension. Findings show, among other things, that (i) an increasing number of borrowers are 60 days or more past due on a non-student-loan credit account since mid-2021; (ii) monthly payments across credit products aside from student loans have increased; and (iii) since the April report, delinquencies on non-student-loan products have risen further, with an overall increase in the number of borrowers (5.1 million to 5.5 million) who meet two or more potential risk factors that indicate a borrower may struggle when the payment suspensions end. These risk factors are: “pre-pandemic delinquencies on student loans, pre-pandemic payment assistance on student loans, multiple student loan servicers, delinquencies on other credit products since the start of the pandemic, and new non-medical collections during the pandemic.” The Bureau noted, however, that as many as one-third of borrowers with two or more risk factors may have their balances completely canceled under the student debt cancellation plan, so “despite worsening credit outcomes overall, the cancellation of some student loan debt means that fewer student loan borrowers are likely to be at risk of payment difficulties when federal student loan payments resume in January 2023 than they otherwise would be.”
On October 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling dismissing a putative class action alleging an internet credit union improperly charged account holders non-sufficient funds (NSF) fees. Plaintiff claimed she signed an account agreement with the credit union, which required the use of a ledger-balance method when assessing NSF fees, and that only one NSF fee is permitted per transaction. According to the plaintiff, the credit union breached its contract by charging her a $25 NSF fee when she attempted to pay a $6,000 bill, even though her account’s ledger balance was $6,670.94 at the time. She further claimed the credit union charged multiple NSF fees for the same item. The credit union maintained, however, that the contract allowed it to use the “available-balance method” to assess such fees instead. The opinion explained that the ledger-balance method calculates a balance based on posted debits and deposits (and does not incorporate transactions until they are settled), whereas the available-balance method considers holds on deposits and transactions that have been authorized but not yet settled when calculating a customer’s balance. The district court granted the credit union’s motion to dismiss, rejecting the plaintiff's account balance theory by “explaining that ‘the plain, unambiguous language states that a member needs sufficient available funds’ and reasoning that [plaintiff’s] proposed reading would render [the contract’s] use of the word ‘available’ meaningless.” The district court also maintained that the plural use of the word “fees” permitted the credit union to charge multiple fees when a merchant presented the same transaction more than once.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit agreed with the district court that the agreement did not prohibit the credit union from “charging multiple NSF fees for a transaction that is presented and rejected several times.” While recognizing that the credit union “could have drafted the [a]greement more clearly than it did,” the appellate court determined that the credit union never promised “not to use the available-balance method to assess NSF fees or not to charge multiple fees when a transaction is presented to it multiple times,” and upheld the dismissal of plaintiff’s breach-of-contract claim.
On October 31, the CFPB announced it will reopen the public comment period for 30 days on a 2021 notice and request for comment related to the Bureau’s inquiry into big tech payment platforms. In October 2021, the Bureau issued orders to six large U.S. technology companies seeking information and data on their payment system business practices to inform the agency as to how these companies use personal payments data and manage data access to users (covered by InfoBytes here). The Bureau is inviting additional comments to broaden its understanding of the risks consumers face and potential policy solutions on topics related to, among other things, “companies’ acceptable use policies and their use of fines, liquidated damages provisions, and other penalties.” A notice will be published in the Federal Register with additional details on the public comment period in the coming days.
On October 31, the Department of Education (DOE) announced final rules to streamline and improve targeted debt relief programs. (See DOE fact sheet here.) The final rules implement several changes to protect student borrowers, including:
- Borrower defense to repayment and arbitration. The final rules establish a strong framework for borrowers to raise a defense to repayment if their post-secondary institution misleads or manipulates them. Claims pending on or received on or after July 1, 2023, can be decided individually or as a group, and may be based on one of the following categories of actionable circumstances: substantial misrepresentation, substantial omission of fact, breach of contract, aggressive and deceptive recruitment, or judgments or final secretarial actions. The final rules will only provide full relief (partial discharges will not be considered), with approved claims requiring “that the institution committed an act or omission which caused the borrower detriment of such a nature and degree that warrant full relief” based upon a preponderance of the evidence. Additionally, the final rules establish certain recoupment processes for DOE to pursue institutions for the cost of approved claims, and will allow borrowers to litigate their case “by preventing institutions that participate in the Direct Loan program from requiring borrowers to engage in pre-dispute arbitration or sign class action waivers.”
- Closed school discharges. The final rules provide an automatic discharge of a borrower’s loan “one year after a college’s closure date for borrowers who were enrolled at the time of closure or left 180 days before closure and who do not accept an approved teach-out agreement or a continuation of the program at another location of the school.” Borrowers who accept but do not complete a teach-out agreement or program continuation will receive a discharge one year after the last date of attendance.
- Total and permanent disability discharge. The final rules include new options for borrowers who have had a total and permanent disability to receive a discharge, including borrowers (i) who receive additional types of disability review codes from the Social Security Administration (SSA); (ii) who later aged into retirement benefits and are no longer classified by one of SSA’s codes; (iii) who have an established disability onset date determined by SSA to be at least 5 years in the past; and (iv) whose first continuing disability review is scheduled at three years. The final rules also eliminate a three-year income monitoring requirement.
- Interest capitalization. Under the final rules, “interest will no longer be added to a borrower’s principal balance the first time a borrower enters repayment, upon exiting a forbearance, and leaving any income-driven repayment plan besides Income-Based Repayment.” Specifically, the final rules eliminate all instances where interest capitalization—which occurs when a borrower has outstanding unpaid interest added to the principal balance—is not required by law.
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the final rules will provide benefits for borrowers seeking Public Service Loan Forgiveness, including providing credit toward the program for borrowers who have qualifying employment.
- False certification. The final rules will provide borrowers with an easier path to discharge when a college falsely certifies a borrower’s eligibility for a student loan. This includes expanding allowable documentation, clarifying applicable discharge dates, and allowing for the consideration of group discharges.
The final rules are effective July 1, 2023.